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Relying on gut instinct rather than research can leave you dangerously out of touch, says Colin Byrne

19th March 2017


Until relatively recently, PR relied more on gut instinct than painstaking research and evidence. Coming from politics 20-odd years ago, where we tested every line and soundbite with polling and focus groups, I was shocked to see a lack of rigour in agencies. Yet I realise that I am guilty also.

As a passionate pro-European living in his own media and opinion bubble, I misread (like most of us in our profession) the Brexit result. I also supported, and still support, extending voting to 16 year olds, because I believe it is the right thing to do, because I believed that the young were more likely to vote positively to remain, and I assumed their adoption of social media as a primary news and views source was exciting and would keep them relatively free of media bias.

Apparently, my gut was wrong on at least one count. My friends over at Edelman recently published an extract from their Trust Barometer focussing on 16-18 year olds. My ‘gut’ was right on Europe – 70% would have rejected Brexit had they been given a chance to vote. But on another hunch – that they feel much more comfortable with the dizzying pace of change in social media – I was wrong. Nearly two-thirds of teens were concerned that change was too fast, compared to less than half the general population.

Counter-intuitive. Thank God for planners.

After the last election, which saw youth voting participation fall to a new low, I did a study for The Reuters Institute which saw the alarming decline in trust in politicians and politics. Through Weber Shandwick’s “GenK” research partnership with economist and broadcaster Dr Noreena Hertz, we see the extreme concern about the future amongst 14-20 year olds compared to their millennial siblings. I see this in my own kids – a young millennial who thinks the world is her oyster, and a GenZ/GenK who thinks the world is going to hell in a handcart.

This is not just about politics. The distrust is in brands, leaders, institutions, NGOs, the media. It’s about what we do in PR. We need to look and listen more to this generation. We need to engage with them much more and assume things about them a lot less. And we need to hire a greater diversity of young talent into our industry so we start to look and think more like Britain and less like The Groucho Club.

Brexit, Trump, Corbyn, etc – these are all signs of things to come if we ‘engagers’ don’t work a lot harder for our clients and organisations on rebuilding trust and transparency.

Article written by Colin Byrne, CEO, UK and EMEA at PR firm Weber Shandwick



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